When Words Collide

Mon, January 4th, 2010 at 2:28pm PST

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer
13

BEST COMICS OF THE DECADE: THE TOP 10

Last week I talked about the twenty great comics that didn't quite make it on this list of the Ten Best Comics of the Past Ten Years. Elsewhere on CBR, I've participated in various retrospectives on the last decade -- and am looking forward to the next one -- but there's no doubt in my mind that the 2000s were a wonderful decade for comics. Probably the best ever.

We had an amazing influx of manga, an entire new generation of readers sitting in the aisles of their local chain bookstores, reading comics. We had reprints galore, fancy ones, cheap ones, super-deluxe oversized ones, quick ones, great ones. Whether you were interested in a classic comic strip or the newest Marvel miniseries, you could find in a nice, bound edition. And the overall quality of the serialized comics were far better than any other decade.

Sure, the 1980s gave us "Watchmen," and "Swamp Thing," and "American Flagg!" and "Animal Man," and "Justice League International," but the average monthly comics from that decade were things like "Web of Spider-Man," "The Outsiders," "X-Factor," and "Alpha Flight." You might have fond memories of those titles -- I know I do -- but compare the quality of the writing and the art and the production quality to the average DC and Marvel comics of this past decade and you'll see a major leap forward.

There's also an overwhelming sense that this may be the last decade for comics as we know them. Online serialization is a reality, and weekly trips to the comic shops may fade away sooner than we think. Comics won't disappear, but they'll change shape, literally, to fit our computer screens, or our soon-to-be-announced Mac tablets. And our kids will consume them differently, the way we consume the news differently from our parents.

So let's celebrate this past decade. The best decade in the history of comics. And recognize the end of an era by looking at some of the highlights.

10. "New X-Men," by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, Chris Bachalo, and various

Maybe you're not surprised that this made the list, but I am. I mean, when I started compiling the list of possible contenders for Best of the Decade, I threw in all of Grant Morrison's work, but I always thought of "New X-Men" as a series of great moments punctuated by a pack of flaws. But then I reread it and wrote about it for CBR. And as I compared it to other comics on my preliminary list, it kept saying "yes," whenever I asked it, "are you better than this other stuff?"

Morrison's feat -- the introduction of compelling new characters, the new twist on teenage rebellion, the rebranding of Magneto as a style, the mysteries, the reversals, and the false climaxes leading to surprise after surprise -- cannot be overlooked. Ultimately, "New X-Men" reads like the best serialized superhero comic of the decade, and the only one on this list. It does what serialized comics should do -- constantly provide the unexpected, while pulling you along for more -- and it takes risks.

It's bold. It's clever. It's often beautiful. But it stabs you in the gut when you aren't looking. And that makes it the pinnacle of long-form superhero comics for the past decade.

9. "Scalped," by Jason Aaron, R. M. Guera, and various

I've always promised myself that I'd write a column or two devoted to "Scalped." It deserves it. It's a major work by a major talent, Jason Aaron, a guy who writes the best dialogue in all of mainstream comics. Guera's good too, with his expressive action scenes, his grungy realism, and his layouts that make you feel like this whole world might just topple over at any time.

But this is a showcase for Aaron, a man who writes as if the spirits of David Simon, Robert Altman, and Garth Ennis hover over him. He's uncouth, vigorous, and structurally playful. And he's a master of creating a sense of place. It's a cliché to say that the "setting is a character," but in the case of "Scalped," it's true.

And this isn't some "Dances with Wolves" take on American Indian struggles. This is a mean crime comic, starring a character who knocks out teeth with his nunchucks.

I've never gotten around to writing that column or two about "Scalped," mostly because I honestly don't have much more to say than this: read it, and you'll see why it's one of the Best Comics of the Decade.

8. "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill

Though the first volume of this series launched at the end of the last decade, the majority of the "League" stories came out in the first decade of the 21st century. And what a smart, fun, crazy comic this is!

The failed movie tainted the reputation of this Alan Moore/Kevin O'Neill work a bit, and "The Black Dossier" left a lot of readers scratching their heads, but as I reread this series recently -- just to see if it deserved even a spot in the Top 30 -- I found that Volume 2 is one of the great comics of this decade all by itself. And "Black Dossier" is a masterpiece of genre pastiche that deserves far more attention than it's ever received. The Top Shelf volume from this year is just the beginning of something bigger, and its not self-sufficient enough to evaluate on its own.

But it's really "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" Book Two that propels this series into the Top 10. The mash-up of Dr. Moreau and "The Wind in the Willows"? The martian invasion and the easy betrayal of the Invisible Man? Hyde's noble sacrifice? This is remarkable stuff. If this comic had come from anyone other than Alan Moore, it would have been hailed as a career-making achievement. But our standards, our expectations, from Alan Moore are so astronomically high, that we didn't embrace "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" Book Two as ecstatically as we might have. We were wrong. This is a superior work.

7. "Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka," by Naoki Urasawa

Barely a week has gone by recently in which I haven't written about "Pluto," so that should have been an indicator that it's been on my mind a lot lately. But is it the type of comic that's good enough to stand next to the Best Comics of the Decade?

Yup, it's one of the best, definitely.

I suppose it's also important to have at least on manga title on any Best of the Decade list. This was the decade of the manga explosion. The decade in which manga penetrated the culture of this country, even though its been trickling in for twenty five years. I know I certainly read a lot of manga in the past decade, even though some of my all-time favorites were from years earlier. I finally finished "Akira," read all of "The Drifting Classroom," devoured "Tekkon Kinkreet."

But "Pluto" isn't on this list just because it's a token example of manga. "Pluto" is a remarkable work of narrative, full of heart and sorrow, exploring identity and war. And though it's only half over, it is impossible to ignore.

6. "Asterios Polyp," by David Mazzucchelli

My #1 comic of 2009 almost cracks the Top 5 of the entire decade. As I mentioned in my early review of the graphic novel, this is "one of the great comics of all time." Whether it's Mazzucchelli's formal experimentation, or his use of allusion, whether it's his innovative use of color, or his explicit focus on how style creates substance, Mazzucchelli makes this a graphic novel that's as much about comics as it is about life.

I've heard that someone involved with the National Book Award wanted to include a graphic novel nominee this year, but felt that "Asterios Polyp" was too insubstantial to merit inclusion. If this graphic novel is too insubstantial for their consideration, then nothing else stands a chance. Because this is a true graphic novel, emphasis on "graphic" and "novel."

5. "All-Star Superman," by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, and Jamie Grant

Fifteen months ago, I wrote about Morrison's Perfect Superman, and I don't have much more to add to my length analysis of last year. This comic is so much more than just a tribute to Silver Age tropes. It's so much more than just a celebration of the first great superhero. It's a story about transcendence, and, like I say in my column, about Apollonian perfection. It's a culmination of Morrison's take on the character, on the genre, but its also a Mobius strip of a narrative. Everything you need to know about Superman is implicit in these pages, and it folds back on itself to end at the beginning, with the Superman Squad going back to visit the young Clark Kent during his final moments with his father.

And it has Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant, who make this the paragon of superhero artistry. This looks like a comic about the gods of imagination, as it should. As it must.

4. "Scott Pilgrim," by Bryan Lee O'Malley

With "Lost at Sea," Bryan Lee O'Malley demonstrated his skill at evoking character, at creating a resonant theme. It was a sweet little book that might have been in consideration as one of the Best of the Decade if it weren't overshadowed by the small press mega-success known as "Scott Pilgrim." With "Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life," O'Malley opened with a witty slacker love story and, by the end of that first volume, created a new kind of comic book. One that combined the video game sensibilities of youth culture with the concerns of growing into adulthood. The first book was fresh, and it felt real, no matter how much techno-magical realism O'Malley employed in the end.

Then something special happened: each successive volume kept getting better and better. O'Malley's artistry improved (to the point where Scott Pilgrim himself looks nothing like the shaggy character on the cover of the first volume) and the story became more and more sophisticated without ever losing the video game structure of Scott Pilgrim vs. Romona Flowers's evil-exes. But those battles have become less and less important as the characters have become more fleshed out.

With a final volume and a movie version due out in 2010, it looks like one of the Best Comics of the Decade will carry over into the new decade with style. But do yourself a favor: read the comics before seeing the movie. They are pretty great.

3. "Casanova," by Matt Fraction, Gabriel Ba, and Fabio Moon

The very first essay I wrote for CBR, before my first column was even published, was "Why 'Casanova' Matters." Because this 14-issue series, soon to be reprinted in full color by, I suspect, Marvel's Icon imprint, not only matters, but stands as one of the best comics published in this past decade. The opening arc, "Luxuria," is a masterpiece of concision, with each sliver of a chapter packed with plot points, action, and razor-sharp dialogue. It's a sexy superspy romp, S.H.I.E.L.D. with a hyper-pop beat, and it's genius.

But the second, still-unavailable-in-a-collected-edition, arc, "Gula," is even better. It builds upon the scenario of the first arc, twists everything upside down, removes the title character from the page, and then finishes with the best finale of any serialized genre comic this decade. As someone who studied each issue, pored over each installment, and commented on the series online as it unfolded, I was still surprised by the revelations at the end. And that's a rare and exciting feeling.

This is the series that made Matt Fraction, Gabriel Ba, and Fabio Moon superstars, even if much of the comic book world didn't know it at the time.

2. "Acme Novelty Library," by Chris Ware

It's hard to top Chris Ware. He is such a unique voice in the comic book world, such a recognizable stylist, that whenever he puts out a new volume of his long-running "Acme Novelty Library," we tend to immediately assume that it will be one of the best books of the year. He's earned that status.

And this was the Decade of Chris Ware, with the Jimmy Corrigan serial reaching its conclusion at the dawn of the decade and getting a collected edition soon after. With "Building Stories" and "Rusty Brown." "Rusty Brown" is still a long way from its conclusion, by all indications, but each installment has been an art object by itself.

Ware's comic are often regarded as depressing, but that seems to be a misreading to me. They are melancholy, they are about people who are depressed, but like Morrison and Quitely's "All-Star Superman," they achieve Apollonian perfection of form. Ware is a miniaturist dealing in themes that are as large as the entire world. He is a stylistic magician. A storyteller. A craftsman. A comic book artist practically without peer.

1. "Eightball," by Dan Clowes

So who can possible top Chris Ware? No one but Dan Clowes.

Only three issues of "Eightball" were released in this entire decade, and with nothing new from the series since 2004, it seems like "Eightball" has long reached its conclusion. But two out of those three issues would have been two out of the top 5 comics of the decade. Originally, I had listed them separately, with "Ice Haven" (issue #22) slightly outranking "Death Ray" (issue #23). But they are both "Eightball," and the combined greatness of those two issues -- those two comics that are so different from one another, so self-contained, and so utterly perfect -- was enough to launch Clowes to the top spot.

"Death Ray" is Clowes's take on a superhero story, as a literal death ray gun becomes the catalyst for a series of moral quandaries and self-reflection. It's a dark story that hinges on a series of subtle images, and it's incredibly powerful. If, indeed, "Eightball" has concluded, it finished with the last word on great power and responsibility as only Clowes could provide.

But "Ice Haven" is the greater work, whether it's the serialized version (which I prefer) or the recut and rearranged Pantheon hardcover edition. "Ice Haven" tells the story of a small town, and a kidnapping, from multiple perspectives. It's a series of unreliable narrators, and each vignette is drawn in a different comic strip style. It's a virtuoso performance from Clowes, a major work of comic book art, and a great example of how comics can be used to achieve effects that prose or films cannot. It is the quintessential comic book story, quintessentially Clowesian, and it makes "Eightball" the Best Comic of the Decade.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon

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